Saturday, August 02, 2008

Sometimes the World is Wrong

A college friend of my wife and his little one. I'm looking forward to being able to pose for a photo like this one soon!

As an African American man married to a white woman and expecting our first child, one of the things that I'm curious about is what he will look like. Not just whose nose, eyes or smile he'll have but where his features will fall on the continuum between his African and European/Jewish ancestry. My wife and I have talked about what we will teach him about responding to a question he may often face, "what are you, white or black?" The answer is both (and proud of it too). Why? Simple. Because it's true. A recent post on the Root (which you should read regularly if you don't) really hit home regarding this issue:

July 29, 2008--Simone snuggled up beside me and pointed to my face. "Mommy," she said, "is a black girl."

How observant, I thought, for a 3-year-old to make such a distinction. "Yes," I said, "Mommy is a black girl."

"Simone," she continued, "is a white girl." In all the time I had dreamed about being a mother and teaching my daughter about her African and European heritage, nothing had prepared me for a statement like this.

I demanded to know who had told her such a thing, but my question was met with silence.

"Well, you're a black girl," I said, knowing that I wasn't being any more accurate than she had been a few moments earlier.

Simone repeated her newfound knowledge to her father and added, "Daddy is a white boy."

He told her she was neither white nor black. "You have the best of both worlds," he said.

His explanation wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than mine.

For a moment, my mind drifted back to our wedding day in 2001, when raising children seemed so far away, when we were just one of the 1.4 million interracial couples tying the knot. In the 41 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriages, the numbers continue to rise. In 2006, interracial marriages totaled 3.9 percent of the nation's 59.5 million marriages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means there are more families like mine addressing similar questions.

Back inside our Alabama home, I was uncomfortable, as if someone was watching our every move. I knew, by the way Ken and I reacted, that our latest dilemma was significant. If we flubbed this one, the one we had known was coming, how could we possibly be counted on to find the right things to say about boys, drugs, choosing the best college or any of those other tough parenting subjects?

After talking with Francis Wardle, executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children and a father of four biracial children, I realized I was in better shape than I thought. Simone, it turns out, could have come to her conclusion about her race by herself. No one told her she was white.

Children between the ages of 3 and 5, he said, are becoming aware of their physical appearance and starting to make comparisons. Girls, as you would imagine, often do this before boys.

"She has two choices," he said. "She is either the same as you or the same as her father. There isn't a third option." At her age, race is an abstract concept and difficult to grasp. (Read the whole thing here)

If you read some of the comments prompted by this post, you will find that many of them involve a simple logic. Any child with a black parent is black period. Why? Because that is the way they will be seen by the world. If you teach your children to believe anything else then you're 'idealistic' at best and 'self-hating' at worst. Some comments even refer directly to the 'one drop rule' from slavery days where the law of the land was that anyone with any 'negro' ancestry was to be considered black. Why? Simple. Because it benefited a racist social order. That is the only reason that people were taught to believe this made-up, absurd 'rule'. So let me get this straight, I should teach my son to ascribe to this 'one drop rule', a concept which only existed to perpetuate racism because that will somehow help him deal more effectively with racism he might face in his life. Makes total sense, right?

Telling my son the truth about who is and making sure that he understands the realities (and absurdities) of race are not mutually exclusive. He will hear all about the world he is living in and how the world may perceive and treat him at times. But he will also hear that sometimes 'the world' is wrong and he does not have to accept what 'the world' tries to tell him is true.

The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.
(Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)